God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

If Jerome Jumped off a Cliff, Would You?

In rejecting word-for-word translations, Dr. Daniel B. Wallace explains that, “Jerome argued against this, noting that his translation of the Vulgate was not word-for-word, but sense-for-sense.” A follow-up comment suggests that Jerome implied that he translated holy scriptures “word for word.”

Here’s my question: Does it matter what Jerome did? More generally, does it matter how anyone in the ancient world approached translation? What if Paul had a clear position on the matter? Should we care what approach the Septuagint reflects?

I have often pointed out that we are better equipped now to retrieve the ancient Hebrew and Greek meanings and render them in a new language than we have been at any time since the words of Scripture were first written down.

My analogy is that we know more now about ancient Egypt than they did in the days of King James or of Jesus. Even though they were closer in time, modern science gives us tools they couldn’t even have imagined: carbon dating, for example, and satellite imaging. Similarly, we have better linguistic tools now than they had 400 or 2,000 years ago, and these tools give us better insight into the original texts.

Though I think most people agree that we’ve made huge progress in the fields of linguistics and translation, that doesn’t mean that the matter is settled. After all, “out with the old, in with the new” is hardly a phrase commonly heard resounding in seminary halls.

As it happens, the traditional Jewish answer is that the modern advances are irrelevant. What’s really important is the tradition as reflected in the Talmud, Rashi, and so forth. In one case, the Dead Sea Scrolls, combined with the LXX, provided convincing evidence that two letters are switched in the traditional first word of Deuteronomy 31:1. This is why the KJV translates that verse as, “And Moses went and spake these words…” while the NRSV and NAB agree on “When Moses finished speaking these words…” But the Jewish Publication Society translation retains the older understanding, based on the older text. It’s not that the evidence isn’t convincing. It’s irrelevant.

(As part of my travels, I commonly present to interfaith audiences, and, by and large, the Christians are bewildered by this Jewish approach, while the Jews often think it’s self evident.)

Another example comes from the Ten Commandments. There’s very good reason to think that the 10th commandment has to do with taking, not wanting, but not everyone agrees that we should update the translations or our understanding of the text.

All of this brings us back to the issue of historical translation approaches. Does it matter how people translated in the past? Or should we just use the best that modern science has to offer? What do you think?

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October 10, 2012 Posted by | Bible versions, translation theory | , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

God as Reward(er) and Protector in Genesis 15:1

From the About page comes this great question: Does Genesis 15:1 mean “your [Abram’s] reward will be very great” or “I [God] am your great reward”?

The NRSV translates it, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great,” while the KJV has a different understanding: “Fear not, Abram: I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward.”

The issue is the final phrase in Hebrew, which (disregarding tense for a moment), according to the NRSV, means “your reward is good,” while the KJV thinks it means “your good reward.” Together with the first part of the sentence (“I am your shield”), the NRSV version ends up, “I am your shield and your reward is good,” while the KJV is also coherent: “I am your shield, your good reward.”

It turns out that the Hebrew is actually ambiguous.

To understand the text here we need a detour through a handful of related bits of Hebrew grammar. (And, really, what says “fun” more on a Friday morning in early September than a handful of Hebrew grammar?)

First, adjectives in Hebrew generally follow nouns, and there’s no word for “a” or “an.” So, for example, from the Hebrew words yeled (“boy”) and tov (“good”), we get yeled tov, “a good boy.”

Secondly, Hebrew does have a word “the” in the form of the prefix ha-. When it’s used, it gets put on both nouns and adjectives. So “the good boy” in Hebrew is ha-yeled ha-tov, literaly “the-boy the-good.” Furthermore, some phrases (technically called “definites”) behave like they have “the.” One such case is possessives. So “my good boy” in Hebrew is “my-boy the-good” (yaldi ha-tov).

Thirdly, Hebrew almost never uses “to be” in the present tense. So, for example, “I am your shield” in Hebrew is just “I your shield.” (The KJV — foolishly, in my opinion — sometimes uses italics in English to reflect the Hebrew grammar in these cases.)

The combination of the first and third bits create potential ambiguity. While yeled tov can mean “a good boy,” it can also mean “a boy is good.”

As a matter of practice, though, this kind of ambiguity is rare, because of the second bit. Hebrew differentiates between “the good boy” and “the boy is good” by using “the-boy the-good” (ha-yeled ha-tov, as we’ve seen) for the first one, and “the-boy good” (ha-yeled tov) for the second.

Similarly, “your good reward” is “your-reward the-good” in Hebrew (s’char’cha hatov), while “your reward is good” in Hebrew is “your-reward good” (s’char’cha tov). So you might expect that we’d be able to distinguish between “your great reward” and “your reward is great.”

Unfortunately, the word for “great” here is harbeh, and, together with m’od (“very”), it forms the invariant phrase harbeh m’od. Unlike most modifiers, that phrase never takes “the.” So “your reward is very great” in Hebrew is (as we see here in Genesis 1:15) “your-reward very great” (s’char’cha harbeh m’od) but “your very great reward” is the identical Hebrew, because, in this case, the expected “your-reward the-very-great” doesn’t exist.

This means that, as a matter of translating this sentence, the Hebrew is truly ambiguous. So we have to look elsewhere for clues.

One such clue might be the tenses. The first is present tense, and the second — if, as in the NRSV, it is its own clause — is also present tense. So the NRSV has to explain why the sentence doesn’t mean, “I am your shield; your reward is very great.” This seems to point in the direction of the KJV.

On the other hand, tenses are notoriously idiosyncratic, and anyone who’s looked at Hebrew knows that we commonly see one tense in Hebrew and a different one in English.

The commentator Rashi suggests that God is assuaging Abram on two fronts: he will not be punished, and he will be rewarded. So Rashi thinks the line means “don’t fear, Abram, I will be your shield [so you will not be punished] and you will be rewarded.” So Rashi would have sided with the NRSV.

I have some more thoughts, but nothing to convince me solidly one way or the other. (For those who are curious, here’s a list of where the phrase harbeh m’od appears: Genesis 15:1, Genesis 41:49, Deuteronomy 3:5, Joshua 13:1, Joshua 22:8, I Samuel 26:21, II Samuel 8:8, II Samuel 12:2, II Samuel 12:30, I Kings 5:9, I Kings 10:10, I Kings 10;11, II Kings 21:16, I Chronicles 20:2, II Chronicles 14;12, II Chronicles 32:27, Ezra 10:1, Nehemiah 2:2, and Jeremiah 40;12.)

So I’m opening up the question here. Based on context, which translation do you think makes more sense? And why?

September 7, 2012 Posted by | grammar, translation practice | , , , , , , , | 25 Comments

On Genesis 1:1

While most translations agree that the translation of Genesis 1:1 should read, “In the beginning…” the (Jewish) JPS translation offers instead, “When God began to create…” And the NLT and some others offer a footnote with that possibility. What’s going on?

The answer dates back 1,000 years to Rashi. He notes that the usual word for “in the beginning” would be barishona. And he further notes that b’reishit is never used except preceding a noun to mean “at the beginning of.”

He therefore concludes that Genesis 1:1 does not say that creation took place “in the beginning,” but rather that it was “in the beginning of” creation that the first part of the story takes place. That is, the earth was in disarray when God began to create.

Rashi’s analysis gives us, “When God began to create,” or (as the translation in Artscroll’s Rashi edition has it) “In the beginning of God’s creating.”

Rashi’s analysis has at least two kinds of problems.

The first is a matter of detail. For his analysis to work, he needs the verb bara to be a participle, though it’s unclear how that’s possible. Secondly, he needs the “and” of “and the earth was…” to mean “when.” That one is possible, though unlikely.

The second kind of problem, though, is methodological.

Rashi is right that b’reishit is never used except before a noun, but there are only four other times the word is used, all of them in Jeremiah, and all of them before words having to do with “kingdom” or “reign.” This is hardly a large enough sample to deduce what b’reishit means. (The same reasoning would force bara to mean something about kingdoms.)

Rashi’s point is actually more generally about reishit. (The b- prefix means “in/when/at/etc.”) But here, too, he runs into problems, wrongly assuming that a word is the sum of its parts.

Furthermore, while Rashi is correct that barishona means “at first,” that doesn’t really have much bearing on what b’reishit means. Perhaps the two words are nearly synonymous, for example. Or maybe barishona means “at first” in the sense of “the first time around” while b’reishit means “at first” in the sense of “the first and only time around.” (I just met someone who introduces his wife as his “first wife.” She is his first, only, and last wife.)

All of which is to say that Rashi’s commentary here is interesting — and it explains the JPS translation — but I don’t think it helps figure out what the first words of the Bible originally meant.

I have more on Genesis 1:1 here, here, and here.

July 19, 2010 Posted by | translation practice | , , , , , , | 12 Comments

Rashi – The Great Jewish Translator and Commentator

The year 1040 saw the birth of a man destined to become the greatest Jewish commentator and a major influence on translations. Born Solomon, son of Isaac, in Troyes, France, he is better known by the acronym his Hebrew name forms: Rashi.

Rashi’s travels and the timing of the Crusades catapulted him to the forefront of Jewish scholarship. Rashi left his birthplace of Troyes to study in Worms (now part of Germany), which was then a major center of Jewish scholarship. While there, he learned the accumulated wisdom of nearly 1,000 years of Jewish exile. Then he went back home to Troyes.

By the time of his death, Crusaders had ransacked Worms, killing Rashi’s teachers and destroying the schools of his youth. But Rashi remained safe in Troyes. He therefore became one of the sole repositories of nearly a millennium of collected Jewish scholarship.

So many people read Rashi alongside the Bible because in so doing they incorporate the first 1,000 years of post-exilic Bible scholarship.

Rashi’s most well-known work takes the form of running commentary to (parts of) the Bible. In general, he offers three kinds of commentary:


  1. Consistency.
  2. Theology.
  3. Linguistics.

Consistency was important to Rashi. He had, apparently, memorized the entire Bible, and he wanted all of it to be consistent. When he found passages that seemed not to be, he offered commentary to explain why the passages were consistent after all.

Rashi also cared deeply about what he saw as Jewish values and beliefs, and he used the Bible homiletically to make various points.

Thirdly, Rashi tried to analyze the Hebrew language of the Bible.

(Though he didn’t know he was doing it, we can add a fourth accomplishment: he helped preserve middle French by using Hebrew transliterations of French to refer to words in his native language.)

Unfortunately, while Rashi proved extraordinary at the first two goals, he lived nearly 1,000 years before modern linguistics, and his linguistic analyses, therefore, are not usually on a par with his other work. To compound matters, Rashi didn’t distinguish among his various goals. So readers must figure out for themselves when Rashi is making a Jewish point that is only loosely based on the text and when he is explaining what the text originally meant.

This background can be helpful for understanding how Rashi’s work influenced Bible translation and scholarship.

I have an example next.

July 19, 2010 Posted by | Off Topic | | 3 Comments